Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky will be tested early
Football is still in the heart of its season. The NBA is just getting started. And the election was only yesterday.
In other words, it may be easy for college basketball to fly under the radar for the start of its season this weekend.
If it’s tough to pull away from football or other responsibilities in November, we’d like to help steer you the key games, teams, players and trends to watch as the college basketball season gets started Friday.
Early season tournaments and key non-conference games could shape the season to come and perhaps some NCAA Tournament resumes come March. Here’s what we’re watching through the season’s first month:
TOP 10 COLLEGE BASKETBALL STORYLINES IN NOVEMBER
1. Kentucky’s title defense
The Kentucky-Indiana series is on hiatus, but that doesn’t mean either team will hurt for major matchups early in the year. By Dec. 1, Kentucky will have faced Maryland, Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor with only the game against the Bears taking place in Lexington. With those kinds of matchups, John Calipari should have a pretty good idea of how freshmen Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress, NC State transfer Ryan Harrow and holdover Kyle Wiltjer mesh with enough time before the Wildcats visit Louisville at the end of December. Kentucky is 38-3 in November and December under Calipari, with all three losses coming to NCAA Tournament-bound teams on the road or at a neutral site.
Related: Kentucky team preview
2. Shabazz Muhammad’s eligibility
The NCAA already cleared freshman Ryan Anderson, but the Bruins are still awaiting word on the status for their other star rookie. Even with the investigation into Muhammad’s amateur status crawling along, it may be unlikely he starts the season anyway after sustaining a shoulder injury. UCLA’s first major test is Nov. 19 in the Legends Classic with a possible game against No. 1 Indiana the following day.
Related: UCLA team preview
3. A loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field (Nov. 22-24)
The top early-season tournament will be on an island, but not in Maui. The Battle 4 Atlantis boasts a field deep enough that even the consolation games could feature would-be NCAA Tournament teams. Second-round games between Louisville and Missouri, which would bring a matchup All-American point guards Peyton Siva and Phil Pressey, and Memphis and Duke would be mandatory viewing on the day after Thanksgiving. Minnesota and Stanford, two teams optimistic after runs in the NIT last season, are also in the bracket.
Related: Louisville team preview
4. Aircraft carrier/military base games
Last season opened with North Carolina defeating Michigan State 67-55 on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. The idea spread for the start of this season with Syracuse-San Diego State in the Navy-Marine Corps Classic aboard the USS Midway in San Diego, Florida-Georgetown aboard the USS Midway in Jacksonville, Fla., and Connecticut-Michigan State at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Whether these outdoor games are losing their luster or if they remain a special event, each game this year is a compelling early season matchup.
Related: Michigan State team preview
5. A potential matchup between UCLA and Indiana
Both teams would need to win their opening round games in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- Indiana against Georgia and UCLA against Georgia -- to advance to a final. (Both could lose their opening round games and face each other in a consolation game, but that wouldn’t be quite as interesting.) If Muhammad is eligible, the nation’s top freshman class will face the nation’s No. 1 team and potential national player of the year in Cody Zeller.
Related: Indiana team preview
6. Kevin Ollie’s first test against Michigan State (Nov. 9)
For the first time since 1985-86 Connecticut will open a season without Jim Calhoun calling the shots. Calhoun’s predecessor, Dom Perno, started 8-0 that season with the first loss coming to a Calhoun-coached Northeastern team. Ollie’s first game as head coach will be tough against Michigan State in Germany. By Dec. 4, Ollie’s first team will have played in Europe, the Virgin Islands and Madison Square Garden.
7. Duke’s early season schedule
Duke is part of the loaded field in the Battle 4 Atlantis, but the Blue Devils also will be tested beyond the tournament. Nov. 13 will bring a machup between the defending national champion Kentucky and a team that exited the NCAA Tournament with a loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh. Mason Plumlee’s inside game will be tested against Nerlens Noel and MInnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe while freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon will draw an early matchup against Ohio State’s ace defender Aaron Craft.
Related: Duke team preview
8. Tony Mitchell vs. Doug McDermott (Nov. 9)
Creighton’s Doug McDermott and North Texas’ Tony Mitchell both showed up on Athlon’s preseason All-America teams. In the Missouri Valley and Sun Belt conferences, neither will encounter players of their caliber too often. Here’s a key matchup on the first day of the season between two of the best players from outside of the major conferences.
Related: Q&A with Doug McDermott
9. Barometer games in the Puerto Rico Tipoff (Nov. 15-18)
Tennessee and Oklahoma State both have aspirations of reaching the NCAA Tournament after missing the field a year ago. The Volunteers are looking forward to having Jarnell Stokes for a full season, but his frontcourt bash brother Jeronne Maymon is injured. Meanwhile, the Cowboys hope they can build around freshman point guard Marcus Smart for a return to the NCAA Tournament field. Atop the bracket is ACC contender NC State, which adds its own key freshman in Rodney Purvis.
Related: NC State team preview
10. Long Beach State’s brutal early season schedule
Like it did a year ago, Big West favorite Long Beach State isn’t taking shortcuts with its early season schedule. The 49ers start with North Alabama but then the schedule is as follows: at USC, North Carolina, at Arizona, at Fresno State, at Loyola Marymount, Fresno State (again), at Syracuse, at Ohio State, BYU-Hawaii, at UCLA -- all before Christmas. Meanwhile, Long Beach State will have to play part of that without transfers Keala King (Arizona State) and Tony Freeland (DePaul), who won’t be eligible until December. In a similar strech to start last season, Long Beach State only defeated Pittsburgh, which seemed to say as much about the Panthers as the 49ers. Long Beach State still went on to finish 15-1 in conference and win a Tournament berth.
By David Fox